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Are Old Vines Important?
By Michael Apstein
Nov 11, 2014
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What does it really mean when a label touts a wine as being made from “old vines?” (This would be rendered as Vieilles Vignes, Vecchie Viti or Viñas Viejas, depending on whether you’ve got a French, Italian or Spanish import.) As with many factors in the world of wine, the answer isn’t straightforward. There is no legal definition of what actually counts as an “old vine,” so the first two questions that spring to mind are, “What do you mean by ‘old,’” and “how does one know how old a vine is?”

Setting aside definition and verification, every winemaker with whom I’ve spoken says that grapes from old vines make better wine. The market seems to agree. Why else would Bruno Clair’s Savigny-lès-Beaune “Les Dominodes,” made from 100-year old vines, sell for at least 50 percent more than other wines from that vineyard? Sure, he’s a top-notch grower, but this is a wine from a less prestigious village in the Côte de Beaune, not some sought-after treasure from the prized Côte de Nuits. But the wine is stunning--delivering an ever-elegant plethora of flavors--even in years with less-than-perfect growing seasons. Bruno Clair attributes the wine’s beauty to the old vines and notes that old vines seem to adapt well to less-than-ideal weather conditions. He and others agree lower yields that go hand in hand with vine age and account for superior quality.

Ivo Jeramaz, Mike Grgich’s nephew and the head of the winemaking team at Grgich Hills Estate, one of Napa’s finest, describes two and a half to three 3 tons/acre as a “bumper crop for old vines,” but cautions that yields should really be measured by vine, and not by acre. And yield alone is not the explanation because yields are dependent on viticultural variables--pruning, clonal and rootstock selection and whether to green harvest, to mention just a few. Jeramaz points out that lower yields, “Depend as much on the farmer as the age of vine.”

Furthermore, winemakers in California, Europe and Australia and other individuals with vast experience in the industry have offered many other caveats that make answering the question trickier than you’d imagine.

Not Just Age

Piero Mastroberardino, whose family owns the eponymous 100+ year-old estate in Campania, notes that they have Aglianico vineyards that average 50 years of age and produce superior grapes. But, he cautions, whether old vines produce better grapes (and hence wines), “Is not simply a matter of age. If the vines are stressed, old vines they won’t produce great fruit. It depends how the vines have been tended during their lifetime. If there’s a balance between the roots, plant, leaves and the fruit, and then you can get wonderful grapes.” Furthermore, he says, “It depends on how you train the vines, whether you are looking for quicker, short term results, or plan for the long run.” He sounds a cautionary note, adding that most of today’s old vines are the result of the by-gone practice of low density planting. “The current fashion for high density-planted vineyards is relatively new, so we don’t know whether they will produce higher quality fruit when they’re 50 years old.”

Boris Champy, head of winemaking for Maison Louis Latour, the prestigious Burgundy négociant, adds that location of the vineyard makes a difference. He notes their vines in the Ardèche, a more southern locale than their major holdings in Burgundy, grow and age faster, but do not last as long, because of the warmer climate.

Véronique Drouhin, whose family owns Maison Drouhin, another of the top-notch Burgundy négociants, and Domaine Drouhin Oregon, believes that vine age is equally important for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. She should know. Drouhin has about 17 acres of each planted in Clos des Mouches, a prized premier cru vineyard in Beaune, and she has a vast experience with the wines made from both new and old vines because of their gradual replanting of that vineyard. She considers that when vines “reach the age of 25 they start to belong the category of older vines. When they reach 40 we would say they are old.”

Deeper Roots

Jeramaz believes that old vines, which he defines as a minimum of 20 years, are crucial for the “expression of terroir” and is emphatic that they produce superior quality grapes. (At Clos de Tart, a Grand Cru Burgundy vineyard in Morey St. Denis, winemaker and general manager, Sylvain Pitiot, says that the vines must be a minimum of 25 years old before their grapes are even considered for the grand vin). Jeramaz believes that the best quality fruit is achieved when the vines are under mild stress between the time the berries set and they turn from green to red. When the vines are young their roots do not penetrate the fertile topsoil. They experience excessive growth because of excess water in the spring and then suffer severe stress when there’s no water during the summer.

According to Jeramaz, it’s hard to achieve mild stress when the vines are young--there’s either too much water or too little water. He notes, and every producer to whom I spoke agreed, that the deeper root system of old vines was key their quality. Jeramaz believes (though he’s quick to admit he has no scientific evidence) that micronutrients and trace elements deep in the soil are important for the quality of the grapes. He adds that it isn’t just the deeper roots of old vines that are important. The larger trunks and roots of old vines store more carbohydrates, essential for nourishing the vine in the spring before the leaves develop.

Jeramaz is also emphatic that vines won’t survive until old age if they are treated with chemical and pesticides during their lifetime, and insists, “You need to be organic to have old vines!”

Decreased Yield

Brian Croser, founder of Petaluma Winery in Australia, notes that whether old vines produce better wines depends on the site. He points to Henschke’s Hill of Grace, one of Australia’s best-known single vineyard wines. The Hill of Grace vineyard lies near a church on the lower, more fertile, part of the slope. Originally the wine was pretty ordinary and used for communion, according to Croser, who notes that now that the vines are 100+ years old they have reduced yields--in effect the old vines have “deinvigorated the site”--and now produce fabulous wines. What’s clear to Croser is that 15 year-old vines make better wine than 10 year-old vines, which make better wine than 5 year-old vines. He echoes Jeramaz when he says that as the vine ages it has “better wood” in which to store carbohydrate critical for surviving the winter and spring.

Anthony Taylor, Director of Public Relations for Gabriel Meffre, a notable French négociant, with 35 years in the business, agrees that older vines produce a smaller yield of better grapes and uses an analogy to litter size. If a dog has 10 puppies, they’re all pretty small, but with a reduced litter size (yield) the pups (grapes) are more robust. It’s as though the land has a certain amount of flavor to deliver and with a smaller yield, that flavor is more concentrated.

Fred Ek, who as a broker and importer introduced Guigal’s wines to the U.S. and has an extensive experience with them, attributes the incredible development of La Mouline, (one of Guigal’s prized and expensive single vineyard wines from the Côte Rôtie) with cellaring to the old vine Syrah in the vineyard. La Mouline’s first vintage was 1966 and by then the vines, which had been planted in the 1920s, were already almost 50 years old. In comparison, La Turque and La Landonne, Guigal’s two other prized single vineyard wines not far from La Mouline in the Côte Rôtie, come from vineyards planted much more recently, and, according to Ek, age slightly less gracefully.

Alexis Rousset-Rouard, who manages his family’s estate, Domaine de la Citadelle, one of the best in the Luberon, concurs that old vines are more “self-regulated” which leads to better-balanced wines. He thinks vine age is less important for Syrah than for Grenache or Carignan and notes that young Syrah vines produce very appealing wines. But his assessment regarding Syrah may be colored by the fact that Syrah is a relatively recent addition to the cépage in the Southern Rhône.

A Matter of Style

Though everyone agrees on the value of old vines, some fine producers, such as Domaines Ott in Provence, prefer to keep the average age of their vineyards for their white and rosé to a modest 22 years old. Christian Renard, Director of Sales for Domaines Ott, says, “It’s a question of balance.” Old vines bring more “heaviness” to the wines, so for Clos Mireille Blanc des Blancs, their exquisite Côtes de Provence white that is a blend of Semillon and Rolle (a.k.a. Vermentino) and their rosé (a blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah) they prefer younger vines that produce more delicately flavored grapes. In contrast, for Château de Selle, their other Côtes de Provence estate, they prize their 50 to 60 year old Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which indeed, produced a sensational 2011 red Côtes de Provence wine.

Old vines are essential for the style of Mas de Cadenet’s top wines, including their rosé. They are prized by Mathieu Négrel, a member of the family who owns Mas de Cadenet, one of the best and oldest producers in the Sainte Victoire subzone of the Côtes de Provence appellation (they just celebrated their 200th anniversary). Négrel notes, “Old vines give great density to the wines, both red and white.” He continues, “They produce less, but the wines have more spice and complexity.” Their top cuvees of white, red and rosé, labeled Mas Négrel Cadenet, all receive some exposure to oak and are made from their oldest vines. Négrel notes that the wines from old vines are “not shy” and “balance the influence of the barrel.” Indeed, their Mas Négrel Cadenet line is simultaneously sumptuous and fresh and exquisitely balanced.

Producer, Producer, Producer

In the end, old vines have the potential to produce better grapes, but how the vines are tended and what the winemaker does with the grapes makes all the difference. Champy sums it up, "The most important factor is wine quality is the goal set by the producer." And thus, as always, it comes back to producer, producer, producer.

November 12, 2014

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Email me your thoughts about old vines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein